Moonlight and Poison Ivy

Author. traveler, andoutspoken observer of American life. DAVID L. COHN is a Southerner, born in Greenville. Mississippi, educated at the University of Virginia and Yale, who has under his signature a study of nice relations in the South, Where I Was Born and Raised; a war diary covering some forty thousand miles. This Is the Story; and two amusing and edifying books on American industry and behavior. The Good Old Days and Love in America.



THERE is little doubt that our attitudes toward marriage, stemming as they must from our attitudes toward life and living, are crippling, if not fatal, to the central relationship in men’s lives. If we tell the young that life is easy, when it is hard; that it is kind, when it is replete with cruel ironies; that all is to be had for the asking, when every blessing must be paid for singly or-doubly; that it is a succession of high moments, when most of it is pedestrian; that it is “romantic,” in the sense of affording high adventure, when its glory lies in man’s struggle against forces he cannot even comprehend; that bigness is greatness and success is achievement - if we teach all these things, then not only is youth corroded, corrupted, and misled, while its wellsprings are poisoned at the source, but the revulsion when it comes is, and must be, shattering.

Yet tills is what we do tell the young; what they are told every day by many magazines, the movies, the radio, and national advertisers. It is, apparently, what we believe, or affect to believe. It is also false, it does not square with human experience, and it is disastrous to marriage.

More and more, American marriage is coming to be a detour to divorce. The divorce rate alone does not fully illuminate the whole shabby matrimonial scene since it reflects only those cases of discord that are made public, but it is an index to private failure become national failure on a huge scale.

Of what significance are miracles of production, our hard work and ingenious gadgets, our cluttered catalogue of things sensible and nonsensical that make up our so-called high standard of living, if millions of men and women take little or no joy in each other; if the house vanishes, the family breaks up, the home is transient ? For what does the ordinary man strive if not for a wife, a home, children, permanence of tenure and affection under one roof? And if these prove to be but an illusion, if the husband becomes an alimony payer, the father a stranger to his children, the seeker for permanency a wanderer, is not ours a matrimonial anarchy?

Why should such anarchy prevail? There is no easy answer to this question. Investigators attribute it to sexual maladjustments, money troubles, friction with in-laws, poor housing, the increasing financial independence of women. These play their part, but some of its causes lie in our national character and attitudes. Marriage and divorce are what they are, to a large degree, because we are what we have become.

American marriage is dangerously weakened at its inception because of our preference for moonlight and poison ivy - the lies elders tell the young about marriage, and the hourly elaboration of these lies, cunningly persuasive, by main magazines, the radio, the movies, national advertisers. It is rarely portrayed for what it is: a difficult and demanding exercise in human relationships; a partnership, not without austerity, in which losses as well as profits are shared; an undertaking dynastic as well as individual. More commonly vulgarly and infantilely — marriage is portrayed as a gumdrop heaven: soft, gooey, chewy, and oh, so sweet.

It is, of course, a heaven of huge dimensions not for us a one-room, walk-up Nirvana—so that the couple attaining it must move about in a Cadillac with a sliding top, and are showered with completely furnished cottages, tickets for trips to Bermuda, whole wardrobes by Christian Dior, television sets, memberships in a country club, and two foam rubber clouds; all delicately scented with Elizabeth Arden’s Blue Crass perfume. The country that invented the airplane and the drive-in movie, where you neck while you look, is certainly not going to cling to yesterday’s antiquated model of marriage.

We are not content, therefore, to marry for reasons that have always moved most people elsewhere. It is not enough that marriage is desirable as a division of labor; that a man wants a woman to run his house and the woman wants a house to run. We scorn the fact that monogamic marriage was born of race experience, the trial-and-error method of centuries having demonstrated that, for most of us, it is the best way for a man and woman to live together and to transmit property through inheritance. We find it repulsive that marriage is no “It must be fate” relationship dreamed up by a bored faun who missed his train at Indianapolis.

Nor are we content, even, that marriage should proceed from love as other men have known it, for this would be to recognize the emotion for what it, in part, is: bitter-sweet, subtly demanding, frequently tempestuous, and capable of vanishing for no apparent reason. It is intolerable to us who dread the tenuous as primitive men dread the evil eye, that, love’s life might hang upon threads so gossamer as the cadence of a voice,’ the clasp of hands, the looks of eyes, the word said, ihe word unsaid. We find it’unbearable that love demands constant replenishing and care; as much care indeed as one gives to one’s ear. lint we do not, for these reasons, reject romantic love in marriage. Allegedly we marry for no other reason. We have created our own moonlight and poison ivy image of love and marriage: a handsome couple, forever fair and young, perpetually embracing on the moonmisty shores of a Cytherea that the map reveals to he Deaf Smith County, Texas.

So, too, we say “ Love is blind.” We mean thereby that the lover sees no imperfect ions or incompatibilities in the beloved, and love’s blindness, therefore, will ensure forever love and marriage. Since this is palpably false, and is indeed anti-romantic, lending to the one or the other a wooden perfection suitable fora department store dummy but not for flesh and blood, whose living wonder is its mixture of elements, it follows that when, some morning at the breakfast table, the shuttered eye sees once more, all is disillusion.

Other peoples, wiser perhaps than we, if less “ romantic,” give a not her interpretation to the same phrase. Love is blind, they say, because the lover consciously closes his eyes to the beloved’s failings, content that the good outweighs the bad. These are not our optics, however, since in love we prefer the straight line irresolute, the rounded curve wavy. It is, moreover, a mature point of view that we find shocking because we invariably associate love with immaturity. Hence Hollywood grandmothers are condemned to go on playing ingenue roles, and Hollywood lovers, with arteries of ‘98, are forever Princeton ‘41.

We do not want to look at life steadily and whole, seeing that it is noble and ignoble, generous and mean, beautiful and ugly, cleanly and filthy, melancholy and joyous; compounded of pain us well as happiness; its gold inextricably mingled with baser metals. Not for us the concept that symmetry derives from asymmetry; or that, in the words of William Blake, “There is a strange disproportion in beauty.”

Powerful agencies disseminate our deadly notion of marriage as a tinsel heaven on earth, often to the muted music of woodwinds blown by those quaint people known as parents. For every dealer in reality who languishes for lack of trade, there are a thousand dealers in illusion besieged by anxious customers. Yet they did not invent the moonlight and poison ivy concept of love and marriage. They merely exploit what is in our minds.


HIGH among our illusions a fleeting love, marriage, and much else — a natural child of moonlight and poison ivy — is the installment plan mentality. It dictates that you do not have to do anything, or become anything, if you can wangle the small down payment on what you want; the rest “just a few cents a day.”

Do you want to marry a rich, handsome young man with (as the magazines put it) “lean flanks” and “strong teeth,”the better to eat you, mull chile? It’s easy. Simply use Princess Mafou’s Face Powder. At your next dinner party three men, dead ringers for Winthrop Rockefeller, will trample one another in the rush to marry you.

Suppose you have no face. Do not. be discouraged. Hands will d the trick as well; or eyelashes, fingernails, hair. There was the girl who could not bring her man to gaff until she discovered Beautress (pronounced Bow-tress). “My dale with Bill that night,” runs the ad, “found me confident, in the new-found glamour of my sparkling Beautress lovely hair . . . His cheek touched its new alluring softness while we danced . . . My heart stood still when he murmured: ‘Dream Girl, that gorgeous hair rates a bridal veil.’”

They were married in a rented submarine, spent their honeymoon at the Stork Club, occasionally left their Martinis to pick up a peck of emeralds at Cartier’s, and because of the housing shortage are now roughing it in a twenty-room hut at Palm Springs. They are deliriously happy and will always be in a state of delirium. For when Bill occasionally looks grumpy, his Dream Girl orders a “festive walnut cake,” chockful of genuine Shasta Brand Walnuts. “ Imagine getting kissed for your cake!” says the ad.

This being the case, why should any woman burden herself with such old-fashioned backbreaking loads as brains, charm, literacy, efficiency, or resemblance to the human race? She can get her man with a shampoo and keep him with walnuts. Go to your favorite drugstore tomorrow, buy yourself a bottle of tin American Dream in the new economysize, shake well before using, and live luxuriously ever afterward.

If you can read the ads, it is not unlikely that you can read a book, although the strain will be greater. There are dozens of books telling you how to handle every question of love and marriage in this happy world rapidly becoming free of dandruff. It is as simple as finding the recipe for lemon pie in Fannie Farmer. Why, then, be concerned with understanding and patience? Why listen to the shy counsel of the shy heart when the ready-made answer to your perplexities is at hand just as the biscuit mix is on your pantry shelf, leaving little to do except, heat and serve?

Whence our feverish search for the easy way; our obsession with the opiate dream? Is it that we have no faith except in the infallibility of machinery and so stand incredulous and shaken when the airplane falls? Has Ours become a culture from the periphery of the eyelids outward, lacking inner content? Are we, despite our physical energy, an intellectually lazy people, satisfied to take shadow for substance, package for contents and black or white for truth because we are too lethargic to search out the nuances where truth, ever elusive, lies? Has some malign enchantment unfitted us to face life as it is, so that its essence escapes us and we face eventual destruction from within or from without? Is the high point of our civilization reached when a radio announcer screams to a nation enthralled, “That’s right, Mrs. Deffenbaugh!” while $20,000 worth of things, including a houseboat and a wall can-opener, drop into the lap of the lucky winner?

Better marriage relations in this country await, an extensive revaluation of our altitude towards life and living. If our values are shabby and our attitudes adolescent, how can American marriage, made in our image, be anything but a monumental failure?